In the world of American elections, you can have all the press you want. You can give all the speeches you want. You can win the debates, you can have the most followers on Twitter, and you can have the funniest commercials. But at the end of the day, only one thing matters: cold, hard cash.
Much of that cold hard cash comes from just a few extremely wealthy donors. One of those donors, perhaps the most sought after on the Republican side of the aisle, is Sheldon Adelson, the 82-year-old casino magnate who spent $20 million supporting Newt Gingrich during the 2012 Republican primaries and then, after Mitt Romney had cleared away the competition, spent another $30 million supporting the former Massachusetts governor’s failed attempt to defeat Barack Obama.
So yeah, Adelson is what you might call a big deal for Republican candidates. And, as a feature in New York magazine makes clear, he still hasn’t decided who he’s going to support in this election cycle.
Here’s the thing about Adelson: he doesn’t care about a lot of the things that are critical to Republican donors. He doesn’t seem to care about the candidates’ economic plans. He doesn’t seem to take into account what they think about abortion, gay marriage, or corporate tax rates. Based on everything he’s said and done, Adelson cares about one thing and one thing only: Israel.
You may think you know what the pro-Israel movement looks like—waving the flag of the Jewish state, supporting or at least understanding the military actions of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, arguing for an explicitly Jewish Israel with Jerusalem as its undivided capital. Adelson and his ilk take it way beyond that. He is so militant on the issue that he’s considered too right wing for the American Israel Public Affairs Council, the leading representative of the Israel lobby. (According to the New York profile, Adelson split with AIPAC in 2008 after it supported an initiative backed by then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to increase financial support to the Palestinian Authority.)
Adelson has said that the Palestinian people are “an invented people” whose “purpose … is to destroy Israel,” according to the The Times of Israel. He is against any brokering of a peace deal with the Palestinians, opposing the “two-state” solution that has been en vogue with many on both sides of the issue for decades. Adelson and many on the right are instead in favor of a “one-state solution,” an annexation of the Palestinian territories by Israel.
Given where Adelson comes down on this issue, the race to get his money is essentially a contest to see who can go farthest to the right on the Israel issue while still maintaining some chance of beating Hilary Clinton or another Democrat in the general election. Trump may share Adelson’s interest in casinos, but his focus is almost entirely on immigration in the U.S., and his foreign policy chops are almost as big of a joke as his hair. The New York feature notes that Jeb Bush could be an ideal candidate for Adelson, especially given the rave reviews his brother received from the Israel lobby during his presidency. Then again, Bush’s attachment to foreign policy adviser James Baker, who Adelson despises for giving a speech to the pro-two state solution, liberal Jewish-American group J Street, could hurt his chances at getting Adelson’s dollars. Marco Rubio is supposedly a personal favorite of Adelson, but some don’t think he can outflank Trump. Ted Cruz, meanwhile, is thought to be unelectable in a general election.
(The New York article doesn’t even get into Rand Paul, who generally breaks the mold of the unequivocal support for Israel within the GOP— he is “a different kind of Republican,” after all—and who likely makes Adelson see red.)
The battle for Adelson’s treasure chest is likely to be fought mostly over the Iran deal currently waiting for a vote in Congress. Adelson, according to New York’s profile, has said the U.S. should preemptively launch a nuclear strike to send a warning to Iran. So candidates courting his favor are going to be vocally against the deal — and they already have been, such as when Mike Huckabee declared that the deal was akin to sanctioning a new Holocaust.
Sheldon Adelson, an aging casino magnate with big stacks of money burning a hole in his pocket, is looking for a Republican horse to back in a very crowded field, an environment in which an influx of cash could make a huge difference. To succeed, the assembled candidates are going to have to race to the right on Israel.